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Author Topic: Liberty And Legalism
Advanced Member
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I did not know all those different types of antinomianism! Thank you. When teaching my daughter I struggle to balance explanation with experience. I want to protect her by words. But she learns best through action. Not an easy problem.

I guess the father of the prodigal son had the same problem: words don't fix everything, no matter how much you love. Even the elder brother was envious and unloving though obedient.

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Carol Swenson
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Good works are important.

10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
Ephesians 2:10

During His earthly ministry, Christ lived among the Jews who followed the Law of Moses. This Law was strict and ritualistic, and was closely associated with the Temple. This was the Old Covenant that God commanded the Hebrews (the Jews) to obey after freeing them from their slavery in Egypt. God's command to obey that Law continued until Christ brought the New Covenant.

In Christ we are free from that ritualistic Law of Moses, but we are not free to sin. Christ taught us to love, forgive, care for the poor, and many other things. The Apostles and especially Paul wrote letters, called the Epistles, to enrich our understanding of God's will through Christ.

We do good works but not to earn salvation or blessings. We do good works because we care about others and we love our Lord Jesus. The gifts of the Spirit are another topic, but we can talk about that if you want. The gifts and good works are often the same works.

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I guess I'm just not as well-read, or just not up on all the theologian vocabulary. [Wink]

It's just hard for me to see what points the author is trying to make sometimes as I read it all.

Maybe part of the reason is that some parts kind of seem contradictory to other parts, to me... so it makes me wonder if I just am not understanding correctly.

Is the author basically saying that good works are important? Or that they are not important?

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Carol Swenson
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It all came from the book. Antinomianism is a fancy word, but what other words do you think are fancy? [Confused]

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There's a lot of fancy words in there- not sure I understand all of it.

Did that all come out of that book, or did part of that post come from your words?

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Carol Swenson
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Salvation Brings Freedom

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves
be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.


The New Testament sees salvation in Christ as liberation and the Christian life as one of liberty—Christ has freed us for freedom (Gal. 5:1; John 8:32, 36). Christ's liberating action is not a matter of socio-politico-economic improvement, as is sometimes suggested today, but relates to the following three points:

First, Christians have been set free from the law as a system of salvation. Being justified by faith in Christ, they are no longer under God's law, but under his grace (Rom. 3:19; 6:14-15; Gal. 3:23-25). This means that their standing with God (the "peace" and "access" of Rom. 5:1-2) rests wholly on the fact that they have been accepted and adopted in Christ. It does not, nor ever will it, depend on what they do; it will never be imperiled by what they fail to do. They live, and as long as they are in this world will live, not by being perfect, but by being forgiven.

All natural religion, then, is negated, for the natural instinct of fallen man, as expressed in every form of religion that the world has ever devised, is to suppose that one gains and keeps a right relationship with ultimate reality (whether conceived as a personal God or in other terms) by disciplines of law observance, right ritual, and asceticism. This is how the world's faiths prescribe the establishing of one's own righteousness—the very thing Paul saw unbelieving Jews trying to do (Rom. 10:3). Paul's experience had taught him that this is a hopeless enterprise. No human performance is ever good enough, for there are always wrong desires in the heart, along with a lack of right ones, regardless of how correct one's outward motions are (Rom. 7:7-11; cf. Phil. 3:6), and it is at the heart that God looks first.

All the law can do is arouse, expose, and condemn the sin that permeates our moral makeup, and so make us aware of its reality, depth, and guilt (Rom. 3:19; 1 Cor. 15:56; Gal. 3:10). So the futility of treating the law as a covenant of works, and seeking righteousness by it, becomes plain (Gal. 3:10-12; 4:21-31), as does the misery of not knowing what else to do. This is the bondage to the law from which Christ sets us free.

Second, Christians have been set free from sin's domination (John 8:34-36; Rom. 6:14-23). They have been supernaturally regenerated and made alive to God through union with Christ in his death and risen life (Rom. 6:3-11), and this means that the deepest desire of their heart now is to serve God by practicing righteousness (Rom. 6:18, 22). Sin's domination involved not only constant acts of disobedience, but also a constant lack of zeal for law-keeping, rising sometimes to positive resentment and hatred toward the law. Now, however, being changed in heart, motivated by gratitude for acceptance through free grace, and energized by the Holy Spirit, they "serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code" (Rom. 7:6). This means that their attempts at obedience are now joyful and integrated in a way that was never true before. Sin rules them no longer. In this respect, too, they have been liberated from bondage.

Third, Christians have been set free from the superstition that treats matter and physical pleasure as intrinsically evil. Against this idea, Paul insists that Christians are free to enjoy as God's good gifts all created things and the pleasures that they yield (1 Tim. 4:1-5), provided only that we do not transgress the moral law in our enjoyments or hinder our own spiritual well-being or that of others (1 Cor. 6:12-13; 8:7-13). The Reformers renewed this emphasis against various forms of medieval legalism.


Working for God's Favor Forfeits It

...Do not do what they do, for they do not
practice what they preach. They tie up heavy
loads and put them on men's shoulders, but
they themselves are not willing to lift a
finger to move them. Everything they do is
done for men to see ...

MATTHEW 23:3-5

The New Testament views Christian obedience as the practice of "good deeds" (works). Christians are to be "rich in good deeds" (1 Tim. 6:18; cf. Matt. 5:16; Eph. 2:10; 2 Tim. 3:17;Titus 2:7,14; 3:8,14). A good deed is one done (a) according to the right standard (God's revealed will, i.e., his moral law); (b) from a right motive (the love to God and others that marks the regenerate heart); (c) with a right purpose (pleasing and glorifying God, honoring Christ, advancing his kingdom, and benefiting one's neighbor).

Legalism is a distortion of obedience that can never produce truly good works. Its first fault is that it skews motive and purpose, seeing good deeds as essentially ways to earn more of God's favor than one has at the moment. Its second fault is arrogance. Belief that one's labor earns God's favor begets contempt for those who do not labor in the same way. Its third fault is lovelessness in that its self-advancing purpose squeezes humble kindness and creative compassion out of the heart.

In the New Testament we meet both Pharisaic and Judaizing legalism. The Pharisees thought that their status as children of Abraham made God's pleasure in them possible, and that their formalized daily law-keeping, down to minutest details, would make it actual. The Judaizers viewed Gentile evangelism as a form of proselytizing for Judaism; they believed that the Gentile believer in Christ must go on to become a Jew by circumcision and observance of the festal calendar and ritual law, and that thus he would gain increased favor with God. Jesus attacked the Pharisees; Paul, the Judaizers.

The Pharisees were formalists, focusing entirely on the externals of action, disregarding motives and purposes, and reducing life to mechanical rule-keeping. They thought themselves faithful law-keepers although (a) they majored in minors, neglecting what matters most (Matt. 23:23-24); (b) their casuistry negated the law's spirit and aim (Matt. 15:3-9; 23:16-24); (c) they treated traditions of practice as part of God's authoritative law, thus binding consciences where God had left them free (Mark 2:16-3:6; 7:1-8); (d) they were hypocrites at heart, angling for man's approval all the time (Luke 20:45-47; Matt. 6:1-8; 23:2-7). Jesus was very sharp with them on these points.

In Galatians, Paul condemns the Judaizers' "Christ-plus" message as obscuring and indeed denying the all-sufficiency of the grace revealed in Jesus (Gal. 3:1-3; 4:21; 5:2-6). In Colossians, he conducts a similar polemic against a similar "Christ-plus" formula for "fullness" (i.e., spiritual completion: Col. 2:8-23). Any "plus" that requires us to take action in order to add to what Christ has given us is a reversion to legalism and, in truth, an insult to Christ.

So far, then, from enriching our relationship with God, as it seeks to do, legalism in all its forms does the opposite. It puts that relationship in jeopardy and, by stopping us focusing on Christ, it starves our souls while feeding our pride. Legalistic religion in all its forms should be avoided like the plague.


We are Not Set Free to Sin

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you
astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he [Christ] is righteous.

1 JOHN 3:7

Antinomianism, which means being "anti-law," is a name for several views that have denied that God's law in Scripture should directly control the Christian's life.

Dualistic antinomianism appears in the Gnostic heretics against whom Jude and Peter wrote (Jude 4-19; 2 Pet. 2). This view sees salvation as for the soul only, and bodily behavior as irrelevant both to God's interest and to the soul's health, so one may behave riotously and it will not matter.

Spirit-centered antinomianism puts such trust in the Holy Spirit's inward prompting as to deny any need to be taught by the law how to live. Freedom from the law as a way of salvation is assumed to bring with it freedom from the law as a guide to conduct. In the first 150 years of the Reformation era this kind of antinomianism often threatened, and Paul's insistence that a truly spiritual person acknowledges the authority of God's Word through Christ's apostles (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. 7:40) suggests that the Spirit-obsessed Corinthian church was in the grip of the same mindset.

Christ-centered antinomianism argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing. But 1 John 1:8-2:1 (expounding 1:7) and 3:4-10 point in a different direction, showing that it is not possible to be in Christ and at the same time to embrace sin as a way of life.

Dispensational antinomianism holds that keeping the moral law is at no stage necessary for Christians, since we live under a dispensation of grace, not of law. Romans 3:31 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 clearly show, however, that law-keeping is a continuing obligation for Christians. "I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law," says Paul (1 Cor. 9:21).

Dialectical antinomianism, as in Barth and Brunner, denies that biblical law is God's direct command and affirms that the Bible's imperative statements trigger the Word of the Spirit, which when it comes may or may not correspond exactly to what is written. The inadequacy of the neo-orthodox view of biblical authority, which explains the inspiration of Scripture in terms of the Bible's instrumentality as a channel for God's present-day utterances to his people, is evident here.

Situationist antinomianism says that a motive and intention of love is all that God now requires of Christians, and the commands of the Decalogue and other ethical parts of Scripture, for all that they are ascribed to God directly, are mere rules of thumb for loving, rules that love may at any time disregard. But Romans 13:8-10, to which this view appeals, teaches that without love as a motive these specific commands cannot be fulfilled. Once more an unacceptably weak view of Scripture surfaces.

It must be stressed that the moral law, as crystallized in the Decalogue and opened up in the ethical teaching of both Testaments, is one coherent law, given to be a code of practice for God's people in every age. In addition, repentance means resolving henceforth to seek God's help in keeping that law. The Spirit is given to empower law-keeping and make us more and more like Christ, the archetypal law-keeper (Matt. 5:17). This law-keeping is in fact the fulfilling of our human nature, and Scripture holds out no hope of salvation for any who, whatever their profession of faith, do not seek to turn from sin to righteousness (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Rev. 21:8).

(Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.)

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